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Historian contributes to knowledge of John Muir

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Historian contributes to knowledge of John Muir

Postby ERIC » Sat Jun 13, 2009 8:53 am

Historian contributes to knowledge of John Muir

By William Tweed • Our Natural World • June 13, 2009
http://www.visaliatimesdelta.com/articl ... /906130323

Not long ago I picked up a copy of a new biography of John Muir. The volume, by historian Donald Worster, had gained good reviews, but I wondered if Worster actually had anything new to say about this best known of California historical figures. It turned out that he did.

Most Californians know a bit about Muir. The Scottish-born naturalist arrived in the Golden State as a young man in 1868, and lived here until his death in 1914. Over time, Muir became so celebrated that his name has been attached to more features and facilities than any other Californian in the state's history.

Search for Muir on a map today and you'll find everything from a freeway in the Bay Area to a high school in Pasadena to the John Muir Trail in the high Sierra.

In his active and long life, Muir engaged in many things. He wrote extensively and well, and most of his books are still in print a century later. We also remember Muir as a mountaineer and explorer, not only in California but also in Alaska. Late in his life he even made an expedition to the Amazon.

What almost no one remembers, however, is that Muir also was an energetic and successful farmer. In April 1880, Muir married Louie Strenzel, the only daughter and sole surviving offspring of a couple that had developed an extensive fruit ranch in the Alhambra Valley near Martinez. Worster's book explores this part of Muir's life better than any of Muir's other biographies.

In the decade after his marriage, Muir focused the majority of his time and energy on the family fruit ranch his wife would eventually own after her parents passed away. Muir's father-in-law, Dr. John Strenzel, had spent decades finding out what grew best in the hill country east of San Francisco Bay. As early as

1863, he was growing grapes, apples, pears, quince, plums, figs, olives and apricots for the urban market.

California agriculture in Muir's day differed in many ways from fruit ranching in the 21st century. Orchard trees then depended upon winter rains for all their water, a pre-irrigation style of farming that made for well-spaced groves. Fertilizers came from the animal waste of barnyard livestock, and modern pesticides had yet to come into existence.

The mechanization of fruit ranching had begun, but horses, not tractors, pulled the plows. Weeding, pruning and picking required lots of farm labor, and in the late 19th century Chinese immigrants did much of the work.

Then, as now, farm laborers often dreamed of bettering their lives, and Muir spent much of his time recruiting, training, and supervising his labor supply.

Muir the fruit rancher aggressively modernized his ranch, consistently seeking the most productive ways to grow what the market wanted. Under his management the ranch prospered, and Muir became a man of substantial means.

A remnant of Muir's ranch still exists. Located in Martinez, the John Muir National Historic Site preserves not only the Victorian home where Muir lived for the last several decades of his life, but also small groves of fruit trees that remind us of Muir the orchardist.

I find this forgotten side of Muir enlightening because it gives us a fuller view of the man. Muir not only climbed mountains and loved nature, but also functioned as a highly successful commercial fruit rancher, staying on the cutting edge of agriculture as it existed in his time.

Our culture has a habit of simplifying historical figures, taking one piece of a person and exaggerating it at the expense of the rest. We've done that with Muir, making him into the ultimate naturalist and forgetting about his life as a farmer.

Today our challenge in California is to find the right balance between the needs of human beings and our responsibility for preserving the Golden State's natural beauty for our descendants.

John Muir the farmer wrestled with those same issues a century ago. Knowing that side of Muir makes his work for nature all that much more significant.

# Three Rivers resident William Tweed writes about the natural world of Tulare County. His column, copyrighted and printed by permission, appears every other week in Living.
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Re: Historian contributes to knowledge of John Muir

Postby BSquared » Sun Jun 14, 2009 7:17 pm

Worcester's book got good reviews out on the right coast, too, and I picked up a copy. Excellent reading, and a much more level-headed less sainted reading of Muir's life than I'm used to. No skeletons in the closet or anything, just good, straightforward biography. Highly recommended.
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Re: Historian contributes to knowledge of John Muir

Postby gdurkee » Mon Feb 15, 2010 9:32 am

No skeletons in the closet or anything,

There's always been a low-level but persistent rumor that he was fooling around with someone's wife while in the Valley his first summer or two. Vague memory has it as Hutching's wife.

As another side note, a friend of mine has seen a letter asking why, later in life, he didn't do more trips. Scribbled in the margin it says "My wife is not a happy camper." Another Muir first... .

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